[Editor’s Note: At the end of May 1968, David received his first degree from Boston University’s School of Theology. To see a brief newspaper clipping click here.]
Typed by Gladys Yegerlehner
Susanna Wesley – Sermon by Rev. David Yegerlehner, Mother’s Day, May 1968
John Wesley shared in the prejudice of his time against women. In one of his arguments against Democracy – for Wesley did not believe in government by the people, he freely accepted the idea of Divine Rights of Kings – he argued that government by the people, if drawn to its logical conclusion, would involve giving the vote to 21 year olds and to women: “But no one did ever maintain this,” said Wesley, “nor probably will they ever.”
History has proved Wesley wrong on his political ideas, but his attitude on women was typical of his time and typical of most of Western history. For there is no one group that has been more discriminated against than women. Only in modern times have women been emancipated to a degree – even now it would be hard for a woman to become President, or to become a freely accepted member of the clergy. How many human resources have been untapped over the centuries because women have been held back and kept in their place! It is a tragedy which staggers the imagination.
Some women, however, who lived in periods when women were repressed, have stood out and made names for themselves. Such a woman was Susannah Wesley, the mother of the founder of our denomination. I thought it fitting, on mother’s day, to talk about one of the better known women in the history of the church.
Susannah Wesley was born Susannah Annesley in 1669 in England. She was the last child of a large family. When she was born, her father was reportedly asked which number she was: he replied that he couldn’t remember whether she was the two dozenth or the quarter-hundredth!
She was born into a religious home; her father was minister in the Puritan tradition; that is, he was a dissenter, a member of a group which officially dissented against the Established Church, The Church of England. Such groups had to be officially registered.
Testimony to Susannah’s seriousness on religious matters is the fact that, of her own free will, she decided that she preferred the Church of England – and at the age of 12, much to the disapproval of her family, entered the Church of England. We will find that this spirit of independence by no means decreased as she grew older.
When Susannah was 20 years of age she married a young pastor named Samuel Wesley. He was a pastor of the Church of England, and he too had gone against a family history of dissent and joined the Established Church. The couple was married in 1698 – just a year after the glorious revolution, in which William and Mary had been invited to the throne of England to replace the exiled James II. Susannah Wesley’s biography from this point on is not the chronicle of an extraordinary ministry, or the building of a great religious movement, for what she did now was raise and run a family – a very large family; over a period of twenty-one years she bore 19 children – ten of whom died in infancy or childhood.
She and her husband lived in Epworth – a small rural community which was in many way unsuited to Samuel Wesley; for Samuel Wesley was a scholar of really amazing proportions. He read Hebrew, Latin, Greek; He wrote a life of Jesus in verse. But most of his congregation was illiterate. Furthermore, he was supposed to farm part of the land surrounding the parsonage to help feed the family; he neglected to do this however – his heart was not in agriculture – which added to the hardship of his family. The family went through periods of great trial and great stress – at times there was a great deal of ill feeling in the community directed toward them. Through all this, including a fire in the parsonage which almost took the life of John Wesley – Susannah held to a firm faith and stands forth as a strong and admirable personality. Her husband Samuel died in 1735 and during the last few
[page 2] years of her life she lived with her children and supported fully the Methodist movement of her most famous sons. She died in 1742 at the age of 73, really quite aged for a woman who had borne 19 children at the end of the 17th century.
I want to hold up for our attention three traits or characteristics of Susannah Wesley which are noteworthy. The first is her capability as a disciplinarian. Many of things which Susannah did in raising her children are understandable as characteristics of the time and today are frowned upon. But I think her methods are interesting nonetheless. In a letter to John she once gave a long description of how she raised her children. It is a very revealing document. She wrote:
“When the children turned a year old (and some before) they were taught to fear the rod and cry softly, by which means they escaped abundance of correction which they might otherwise have had; and that most odious noise of crying of children was rarely heard in the house, but the family usually lived in as much quietness as if there had not been a child among them…Our children were taught, as soon as they could speak, the Lord’s Prayer, which they were made to say at raising and bedtime constantly.”
On the 5th birthday of each child, Susannah sat down with the child and taught him the alphabet; she claims that they all learned it in one day – with the exception of one – who took a day and a half. On the second day each child was started on the book of Genesis, Chapter 1, verse 1, copying it and memorizing it. Thus the Wesley children were taught and thus they were raised – very strictly and in many ways severely. Thus we see reason why John Wesley led a very Methodical existence – and came to found a movement which was dubbed “Methodism.”
The second trait of Susannah’s which I wish to mention was her independence and assertiveness = perhaps somewhat unusual for a woman of her time. Once when Samuel was away from Epworth for a period of weeks, a pastor was invited to fill the pulpit. He was such a bad preacher that Susannah started a church service in the parsonage on Sunday afternoons. Soon there were many more people attending her services than the regular Sunday morning services. The temporary pastor wrote an angry letter to Samuel to protest these developments; Samuel was inclined to agree and wrote his objections to Susannah, because it was most unusual for a woman to be doing such a thing. But Susannah wrote back such an enthusiastic defense of herself, that Samuel dared not command her to cease.
Another example of Susannah’s independence occurred after the death of Queen Mary; Samuel noticed that Susannah was not saying Amen after his prayer for the King, King William, who as a widower was not left alone on the throne. Susannah was refusing to say Amen because she didn’t think it was proper for William, as a foreigner, to occupy the throne – She had been sympathetic to the cause of James II, who had fled England many years before. Susannah stood her ground in refusing to say Amen, and Samuel walked out for several months to London. He returned home only after the death of King William. So Susannah Wesley was no meek and passive woman; she had a bravery and a tenacity which is well reflected in her sons.
The third thing about Mrs. Wesley which I wish to note was her capacity as advisor to her sons long after they had left home; there were no generation gaps involved here. In other words, Mrs. Wesley advised her sons long after the Methodist movement had begun. This was done largely by letter and many of her letters still surive. She did not make small talk in those letters; she was an educated woman and was able to converse about theology and doctrine. It was not uncommon for her to discuss the thought of John Calvin, the Apostles Creed, the Holy Spirit and many other things. And John Wesley valued her thinking greatly. He often wrote to her for advice and guidance. When he was considering going to Georgia, one of the persons he went to see was his mother. He was not at all certain that he should be undertaking such an adventure, but the Wesley household had always had a keen interest in missions when the children were growing up; Susannah would frequently gather the family together and read them letters from missionaries = most commonly missionaries from India. It is not surprising, therefore, that when John told her that he was
[page 3] considering going to Georgia, Susannah (who was recently widowed, and might have asked her sons to stay near here) enthusiastically endorsed the idea. She exclaimed: “Had I twenty sons, I should rejoice if they were all so employed.” Her attitude might have been a significant factor in Wesley’s decision, because he did go to Georgia. So, for many years Susannah was a trusted and respected advisor to her famous son.
In the last century William Wallace wrote: The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.” I am not concerned to prove or disprove this, but we can certainly say that the hand the rocked the cradle of John Wesley is the hand that significantly molded Methodism. Methodism can be glad that it is one of the few religious movements in history, whose founders’ home life is so well known – we certainly know more about Susannah Wesley than we do about Mary. We can cherish the abundance of information we have about the Epworth parsonage and the woman who ran it.
Samuel remained in Church of England. Did not approve Methodist movement.
Of the nine children who survived – 3 were sons – John, Charles, and Samuel. In a book about S.W. which I read recently I learned the daughters had by and large unhappy lives. Only one seemed to find happiness in adulthood and she died about two years after her marriage. The Wesley girls were well educated which was unusual for that day and age. Since their father was a poor country pastor he could not provide them with dowries and they were too well educated to be satisfied with marriage to persons with no education. – One incident is recorded about one daughter who brought disgrace (according to the standards of that day).
©2017 copyright owned and transcribed by Deborah Sweeney
Post originally found: https://genealogylady.net/2017/04/21/mothers-day-sermon/